The EFTA Parliamentary Committee (EFTA PC) and the EFTA Consultative Committee (EFTA CC) gathered on 7 and 8 February 2023 in Geneva and Brussels to exchange views on multilateral, regional, and bilateral trade at a time of major geopolitical shifts.
Under the chairmanship of Trine Lise Sundnes (the Norwegian Parliament) and Kristin Hansen (the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprises), discussions focussed on trade as an engine of peace and prosperity for all, provided that the rules of the game are upheld.
At a meeting with WTO Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the importance of strong and functioning multilateral institutions and a rules-based system was emphasised. ”Trade is about empowering people. But it has had a bad reputation in recent years despite the fact that it pulled hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. We need to deliver quicker results, and this is what I am committed to do at the WTO”, she emphasised.
The EFTA social partners met with Ambassador Pagán, Deputy United States Trade Representative. They discussed global challenges and the U.S. worker centric trade policy. Ambassador Pagán emphasised that the U.S. was committed to the WTO. At the meeting, a discussion took place on how like-minded countries could move forward on climate, labour, and human rights in the WTO context.
The succession of consecutive crises such as the global pandemic and the outbreak of a war of aggression on the European continent had a disastrous impact not only on the most vulnerable people in high-level income countries, but also on developing economies and societies. Reflecting on whether trade can foster economic development in developing countries, Miho Shirotori of the United Nations Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) remarked that “In the current poly-crises context, the situation of the lower-income countries is the most worrisome. As they suffer lower export levels than before the pandemic, there is a need to use trade as a catalyst to a green transition and technology transfer along with financial support as they do not have sufficient fiscal space”.
EFTA social partners also reviewed approaches and provisions on how to best empower workers through trade and to safeguard their rights. At a meeting with International Labour Organisation (ILO) representatives, Richard Samans, Director of Research and G20 Sherpa at ILO, emphasised that “Any country that wants to liberalise trade should invest in the institutions of decent work”. His colleague Marva Corley-Coulibaly who leads the Globalization, Competitiveness and Labour Standards Unit, presented findings from ILO research on the interconnection of trade agreements and labour provisions. She explained that a third of labour agreements contained labour provisions and half of them came into existence in the last decade.
While the EFTA PC and CC have been instrumental in shaping EFTA’s agenda on trade and sustainability, they discussed the way forward with Alice Tipping from the International Institute for Sustainable Development and with Daniel Ramos from the Division on Trade and the Environment at the WTO. He remarked that “The way to measure the carbon-intensity of a product depends on international standards and categories of products. It is challenging, especially for developing countries as the costs of certification are very high. It constitutes another competitive challenge that might harden access to international trade.”
Policies and tools to foster the development of new technologies for accelerating the green and digital transition were also at the heart of the discussions that parliamentarians held with their counterparts of the EU institutions in Brussels.
EFTA parliamentarians discussed Europe’s response to the controversial US Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) with Miapetra Kumpula-Natri, Member of the European Parliament’s delegation for the relations with the US and with Mr Milan Elkertbout, Research Fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS). Mr Elkerbout said “Europe’s debate on IRA reflects the EU’s institutional constraints: competition rules are perceived as a key asset of the Single Market while the EU budget is limited. The EU state aid regime and competition rules need to mutate into an enabler while the EU and the US should cooperate on the homogenisation of standards on low-carbon technologies.”
As part of the EU’s ambition to become more strategic and autonomous, the EFTA PC also discussed the sourcing of raw materials that are critical to sustain the digital transition. EFTA parliamentarians discussed the challenges and way forward with Hildegard Bentele, Member of the European Parliament.
“There is a need for diversification of supplies on the one hand, but also some EU sustainable production on the other. This requires a coherent regulatory framework, international standards and investment,” she remarked.
Institutionalising trade with India was also a topic thoroughly discussed in the context of an upcoming delegation visit of the EFTA PC to India. EFTA parliamentarians had the opportunity to receive information on the state of play and prospects of the recently resumed negotiations on a free trade agreement between the EU and India. This was complemented by an exchange of views with EFTA’s spokesperson on an EFTA-India free trade agreement.
The EFTA PC and the EFTA CC – both advisory bodies to the EFTA Council – held a meeting with EFTA’s Committee on Third-Country Relations which comprises high-level trade officials from the EFTA countries in charge of steering the negotiations and advancing the EFTA third-country agenda. The meeting offered the opportunity to shape strategic priorities for 2023 and address specific ongoing projects.
The EFTA PC is a forum of parliamentarians from the four EFTA countries, while the EFTA CC brings together representatives of the trade union confederations and employers’ associations in the four EFTA countries. The mission of both advisory bodies is to scrutinise and provide advice on the EFTA States’ trade relations with third countries as well as on the relations with the EU through the implementation of the EEA Agreement. Both advisory bodies are vital platforms for dialogue and consultation on social, economic, and political aspects of the EFTA free trade agreements and the functioning of the European Economic Area.
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